The Strokes

 The Strokes

 Julian Casablancas – circa 2001

 “Everybody at the party shouldn’t worry what they wear / Cause today they’ll talk about us, and tomorrow they won’t care” – ’15 Minutes’ (Julian Casablancas)

Rock bands are formed by working class kids.  They are a ticket out of a hard luck life, a passport to fame and fortune.  Well, that’s the popular mythology and image anyway.  American rock band The Strokes is different.  The members of the New York quintet come from relatively affluent backgrounds.  “You know, some of the people in The Strokes, yeah, their parents had success – but we didn’t live like yuppies,” contends Julian Casablancas, the band’s vocalist.  “People often put me in a V-neck tennis club sweater, driving a Bentley, but my life wasn’t like that.”  Casablancas deflects the issue by pointing out, “Compared to people in Africa, I think we’ve all had privileged upbringings.”

Julian Fernando Casablancas is born 23 August 1978 in New York City, New York, U.S.A.  “New York is in my soul,” he will later testify.  His parents are John Casablancas and Jeanette Casablancas (nee Christjansen).  John Casablancas is a ‘business mogul…[The] founder of Elite Model Management.’  Julian comes from Spanish ancestry on the paternal side of the family.  His grandfather, Fernando Casablancas, was a ‘well-known textile businessman.’  Julian’s mother, Jeannette Christjansen was a model.  She won the Miss Denmark 1965 beauty contest and supplies Julian with a Danish maternal background.  “My parents separated when I was 8,” says Julian.  “I grew up with my Mom alone.”

Julian Casablancas first gets drunk when he is 10.  When Julian is in his teens, his mother remarries.  Julian’s stepfather is Sam Adoquei, a painter born in Ghana, Africa.  “He taught me everything about art and philosophy,” says Julian with glowing admiration.  “I drank a lot since I was 14,” Julian admits.  Conflicts with the authorities at school follow.

When he is 14 Julian Casablancas is shipped off by his father, John Casablancas, to Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, ‘an elite boarding school.’  Julian recalls, “Boarding school didn’t feel like my world.  I felt like an alien; people there had a lot of money.”  His relations with authority continue to be poor.  “I was punished all the time…It sucked.  [The kids] were nice, but, you know…they all wore Versace jeans.  It was the biggest culture shock of my life.”  A fellow student whom Julian Casablancas meets at Institut Le Rosey, Albert Hammond, Jr., will also later become a member of The Strokes.

Returning to the U.S.A., Julian Casablancas attends Lycee Francaise de New York.  Another fellow student, in the year below Julian, is Nikolai Fraiture.  Like Albert Hammond, Jr., Nikolai Fraiture is fated to later join The Strokes.  Julian Casablancas graduates from Lycee Francaise de New York in 1996.

Julian Casablancas goes on the Dwight School in Manhattan, New York City.  At this private school he meets Nick Valensi and Fabrizio Moretti.  The three boys form a band called Just Pipe.

Nicholas Valensi is born 16 January 1981 in New York City.  He comes from French and Jewish origins.  Nick’s father is a native of Tunisia in North Africa.  Nick Valensi begins playing guitar when he is 3.  Nick’s father dies when the boy is 10 years old.  Danielle Valensi, Nick’s mother, owns a restaurant on the upper East Side of New York.  Nick Valensi attends Hunter College with Nikolai Fraiture.  Nick graduates from New York City Lab School in 1998.  He goes on to Dwight School where he meets Julian Casablancas and Fabrizio Moretti.  Nick Valensi is both the youngest and the tallest of the future members of The Strokes.  (Nick Valensi is six feet, four inches; Julian Casablancas and Nikolai Fraiture are both six feet, two inches; Albert Hammond, Jr. is five feet, eleven inches; and Fabrizio Moretti is five feet, nine inches.)

Fabrizio Moretti is born 2 June 1980 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  His father is Italian and his mother Brazilian.  Fab has a brother and a sister.  The family moves to New York City when Fab is 3.  He starts playing drums when he is 5.  “I love music, but it is songs and bands and albums that excite me rather than a specific drummer’s style,” he says.  However, it is art, not music, which at first seems to be the lad’s ambition.  Since he wants to be an art teacher, Fabrizio Moretti studies sculpture in college.  He attends university at SUNY, New Paltz, before winding up at the Dwight School with Julian Casablancas and Nick Valensi.  Fab is the most genial of the group, a foil for Julian Casablancas’ more intense and sardonic nature.

Nikolai Fraiture, the former classmate of Nick Valensi (at Hunter College) and Julian Casablancas (at Lycee Francaise de New York), is the next to join the group.  Nikolai Fraiture is born 12 November 1978 in New York City.  His father is French and his mother is Russian.  Nikolai has an older brother, Pierre, and a younger sister, Elizabeth.  Nikolai Fraiture receives his first bass when he is 19 on his graduation from Lycee Francaise de New York in 1997, as a present from his grandfather.  Nikolai is the quietest and most thoughtful of the members of the band.

Completing the line-up is Albert Hammond, Jr., Julian Casablancas’ classmate from Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland.  Albert Louis Hammond, Jr. is born 9 April 1980 in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.  He is the son of Albert Hammond (Senior) and his wife, Claudia Hammond (nee Fernandez).  Albert Hammond (Senior) is a singer and songwriter.  Albert Hammond (Senior) starts out as a songwriter.  With his co-writer Mike Hazelwood, he pens ‘Little Arrows’, a hit for Leapy Lee in 1968.  Albert Hammond (Senior) records a couple of hits himself: ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’ in 1972 and ‘Free Electric Band’ in 1973.  Both are co-written with Mike Hazelwood.  Hammond and Hazelwood also co-write The Hollies’ 1974 hit ‘The Air That I Breathe’.  Albert Hammond goes on to work with other songwriters.  With Carole Bayer Sager he shares a composition credit on ‘When I Need You’, recorded by Leo Sayer in 1977.  Albert Hammond and Hal David co-write ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’, a duet recorded by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson in 1984.  ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, a 1987 song by Starship, is co-written by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren.  Claudia Fernandez, the mother of Albert Hammond, Jr. is an Argentine model and beauty pageant winner.  Young Albert is raised in Argentina.  “Some of my fondest memories as a boy are there,” he says.  At 13, Albert Hammond, Jr. is packed off to Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland where he meets Julian Casablancas.  Hammond then goes on to study at NYU Film School.  While in New York, he spots the sign for John Casablancas’ Elite Model Management and, noting the distinctive surname, Hammond wonders if it is related to his old school friend.  “What are the odds?” asks Albert Hammond, Jr.  “I move to New York and wind up living across the street from Elite, where Julian was working.  I had no friends, so I thought I should go over and speak to him.  Two weeks later, we were living together.”

From 1998, Just Pipe transforms into The Strokes in 1999, a name selected by Julian Casablancas.  The line-up of The Strokes is: Julian Casablancas (vocals), Nick Valensi (guitar), Albert Hammond, Jr. (guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Fabrizio Moretti (drums).  Fab notes, “[Julian Casablancas] had this fantasy right from the start of who he wanted to be.”  Nick Valensi adds, “He seemed really cool.  But also shy and grouchy.”  Nikolai Fraiture claims, “A large part of our relationship [as a band] was based on…being at a bar and drinking.”

“We all dropped out of school, out of our jobs, pretty much sacrificed our social lives for a long time…We ate, slept, walked and talked music,” reports Nick Valensi.  The Strokes make their live debut in autumn 1999 at The Spiral.  They gig around New York at venues like Under the Acme, Baby Jupiter, and Luna.  “We were playing to nobody every two weeks in New York City,” says Valensi, estimating that the band played up to one hundred shows where there were less than one hundred people in the audience.  Gigs at the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom in December 2000 prove fateful.  The person who books The Strokes for these shows, Ryan Gentles, becomes the band’s manager.

The Strokes record a three song EP, ‘The Modern Age’ (UK no. 68), released in the U.S. on Beggar’s Banquet and in the U.K. on Rough Trade, on 29 January 2001.  The tracks on the disc are ‘The Modern Age’, ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Barely Legal’.  All three will be rerecorded for The Strokes’ debut album with slightly different lyrics and arrangements.  Geoff Travis of Rough Trade gets the EP to British rock paper ‘New Musical Express’ who enthusiastically crusade on the band’s behalf.  As hype builds, The Strokes play some shows in the U.K.  “The entire tour was sold out before we even arrived in England,” says an astonished Nick Valensi.  A bidding war breaks out to secure The Strokes’ recording contract.  Although RCA wins out in the U.S.A., Rough Trade retains the U.K. contract.  “It’s easy for people to jump to the wrong conclusions when they’ve only heard one three-song EP,” says Fabrizio Moretti.  “Hopefully when the album comes out people will realise it isn’t just some New York thing and that it is a lot more universal than that.”

The Strokes’ music is variously classified as alternative rock, garage-rock revival, and post-punk revival.  What that basically means is that they play guitar-oriented rock.  At the time, that is uncommon.  At the start of the twenty-first century, dance music and rap are dominant.  The Strokes reintroduce a more gritty sound.  Nirvana’s grunge rock was popular in the early 1990s and Brit pop acts like Oasis and Blur were big in the mid-1990s and it is these sounds The Strokes develop.

The Strokes’ list of influences is wide.  There are first generation rock stars like Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley and Sam Cooke; late 1960s rebels including The Velvet Underground, The Doors and The Stooges; the iconoclastic John Lennon; late 1970s New York art punks The Ramones, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads; new wave act The Cars; and obscure alt rockers Guided By Voices.  “I think we are all fans of Bo Diddley’s rhythm and style,” offers Albert Hammond, Jr. and Diddley’s staccato riffs are an obvious building block in The Strokes’ sound.  The Velvet Underground’s wilfully reductive approach and Television’s meshing guitars are also clear antecedents as is the New York sensibility common to both of those acts.  The Strokes admire Ohio’s Guided By Voices for their ‘no frills aesthetic.’

At first, Julian Casablancas writes all The Strokes’ songs.  However the vocalist, as is his wont, offers contradictory views on the subject.  “I’m always writing something…All these ideas that are just me humming into a recording device,” he claims.  Yet Casablancas also states, “Songwriting is hard – it’s so easy to fall into the same traps.  It’s not like I wake up and songs flow out of me.”  In addition, he declares, “I enjoy songwriting.  It’s slow motion improvising.”  Perhaps this Casablancas quote sums it up: “When you first start writing a song, it’s fun, then when you start recording it, it’s fun, but by the time you’ve finished recording it, you’re sick of it.”  As The Strokes’ career progresses, the other members contribute more to the songwriting, but Casablancas remains involved in more compositions than any of the rest of the band.

Julian Casablancas’ vocals range from a drawled mumble to an angry growl.  He often chews the lyrics to the point where they become indecipherable.  Strokes’ songs sometimes have titles that appear to have no relation to the chorus or lyrical theme.  “I’m not a pop song lyric writer,” Casablancas admits.  “I can’t just focus on one simple meaning or even a double entendre.”  ‘When he writes songs, he tries to create a melody first, and only adds the lyrics later.  He feels that the band’s lyrics are totally secondary to the music.’  Guitarist Nick Valensi suggests, “[Julian’s] ear is so sharp…Creatively he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

The Strokes’ debut album, ‘Is This It’ (2001) (US no. 33, UK no. 2, AUS no. 5), is released on 27 August.  Gordon Raphael produces both this and The Strokes’ next album.  The cover image of ‘Is This It’ is a woman’s black-gloved hand resting on her naked hip.  The woman in the photograph remains unidentified, but it is known that she was the then-girlfriend of the photographer who took the shot, Colin Lane.  The cover is a bit too hot for some markets, so in some regions the alternate cover is ‘a psychedelic photograph of subatomic particle tracks in a bubble chamber.’  The question mark that should follow the album title, ‘Is This It’, is omitted because the band feels it does not look aesthetically right.  ‘Is This It’ is The Strokes’ best album.  It most accurately captures the excitement of the group’s rediscovery of the power of guitar-based rock; it is filled with interlocking rhythms and attractive dynamics in a simple framework.  All the songs are written by Julian Casablancas.  ‘Hard To Explain’ (UK no. 16) is pulsing and percussive.  “I missed the last bus / I’ll take the next train / I try but you see / It’s hard to explain,” sings Casablancas, the song coming to an abrupt stop.  ‘Last Nite’ (UK no. 14, AUS no. 47) is a chiming rocker.  “Last night she said, ‘Oh baby, I feel so down’,” Casablancas informs us before pointing out, “See, people they don’t understand / No, girlfriends they don’t understand.”  ‘Someday’ (UK no. 27) is a carefree shrug in which the singer admits, “In many ways I’ll miss the good old days / Someday, someday” and “My ex says I’m lacking in depth / I will do my best.”  The tracks (besides ‘Last Nite’) revisited from the quintet’s EP, ‘The Modern Age’ and ‘Barely Legal’, offer, respectively, a chugging rhythm and a shivering vibration.  The title track, ‘Is This It’, is a change of pace, a slow-footed throb.  ‘Soma’ takes its name from a Vedic ritual drink in Hindu scriptures that is reputed to confer immortality (“Soma / Is what they would take when hard times opened up their eyes”).  One track on the album, ‘New York City Cops’ (“They ain’t too smart,” advises Casablancas in the lyric) is replaced by ‘When It Started’ in some markets soon after the disc’s initial release, because it is felt ‘New York City Cops’ may be considered ‘inappropriate in the wake of the [September 11] terrorist attacks.’  “The objective of ‘This Is It’ was to be really cool and non-mainstream, and be really popular,” says Julian Casablancas.  Guitarist Nick Valensi suggests, “The reason people liked the first record [is] maybe because it was kind of new wave, kind of retro, and no one was doing that music then…We were filling some kind of void in music.”  ‘Is This It’ ‘sounds like a lost album by one of the classic bands of yesteryear.’

In 2001 Nick Valensi begins dating English actress and photographer Amanda de Cadenet.

In 2002 Fabrizio Moretti begins a relationship with Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore.  The two become engaged in 2004, but the five year relationship comes to an end in January 2007.

The Strokes’ second album is ‘Room On Fire’ (2003) (US no. 4, UK no. 2, AUS no. 6).  The cover is a reproduction of the painting ‘War/Game’ (1961) by Peter Phillips.  Again, all the songs on this disc are Julian Casablancas compositions.  This is described as a ‘more meticulous’ album.  Nick Valensi says, “I think this is our most listenable album from start to finish, possibly better than our first.”  There is some concern that ‘Room On Fire’ is too similar to ‘Is This It’, but why mess with a winning approach?  The album’s highlight is ’12:51’ (UK no. 7), a track notable for ‘Valensi’s synth-mimicking guitar lines’, its handclaps and the inexorable power of the song to draw in listeners.  “12:51 is the time my voice / Found the words I sought,” sings Julian Casablancas, requesting, “Kiss me now that I’m older.”  ‘Reptilia’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 68) boasts one of The Strokes’ greatest riffs and, true to its name, is serpentine and slithery.  Lines from ‘Reptilia’ also supply the album’s title: “The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair / ‘You sound so angry / Just calm down, you found me.’”  ‘The End Has No End’ (UK no. 27) is fuelled by a ticking tension: “He want it easy, he want it relaxed / Said I can do a lot of things, but I can’t do that.”  ‘Room On Fire’ is also home to one of the most underrated songs in The Strokes’ catalogue, the splayed rock of ‘What Ever Happened.’

Nikolai Fraiture marries Ilona ‘Illy’ Jankovich in 2004.  They have two children: a daughter named Elysia and a son named Phoenix.

Sometime around here Albert Hammond, Jr. dates Catherine Pearce for a while.  Together with her sister, Catherine Pearce makes up the ‘alt country’ duo, The Pearces.

On 5 February 2005 Julian Casablancas marries Juliet Joslin, who was an assistant to The Strokes’ manager.  Julian and Juliet go on to have a son together, Cal (born January 2010).

Julian Casablancas quits drinking soon after the completion of ‘Room On Fire’.  The singer also notes, “I think I used to do everything and then people had a problem with that within the band, so we’re doing more of a communal thing.”  Bassist Nikolai Fraiture sees a connection between the two developments: “We were all up for working on music and playing, but [Julian] would want to get back to New York, and get settled [before writing].  It was a little bit frustrating.  Around then he started withdrawing, maybe because he stopped drinking as well.”

‘First Impressions Of Earth’ (2006) (US no. 4, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4) is released in January.  The Strokes use this disc to address two major concerns about the band: the similarity in sound from their first to second albums, and vocalist Julian Casablancas’ dominance of the group.  Three of the disc’s fourteen tracks have music co-written by Casablancas and other members of the band: ‘Ask Me Anything’ (with guitarist Nick Valensi), ‘Killing Lies’ (with bassist Nikolai Fraiture) and ‘Evening Sun’ (with drummer Fabrizio Moretti).  Additionally, Gordon Raphael – the producer of the two previous discs – shares production duties here with David Kahne.  While these moves certainly result in a wider sonic palette, paradoxically, the most successful songs on the disc are those most faithful to the traditional Strokes sound.  There is the ‘marauding spy theme’ ‘Juicebox’ (US no. 98, UK no. 5, AUS no. 44).  “Oh but why won’t you come over here?” asks Casablancas in the lyrics, “We’ve got a city to love.”  Fraiture’s bludgeoning bass underpins the singer’s throaty growl on this track.  “I don’t feel better when I’m f***ing around,” begins Casablancas negotiating the spidery guitar needles of ‘Heart In A Cage’ (UK no. 25).  ‘You Only Live Once’ (AUS no. 52) is the best Strokes song of all time.  The guitar riffs interlock with something close to perfection and the sugary rush of the chorus finds Casablancas urging, “Sit me down.  Shut me up. / I’ll calm down / And I’ll get along with you.”  ’15 Minutes’ is also from this album.  ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ is described as ‘even poppier and more polished’ but there is disquiet amongst the group with this set.  Fabrizio Moretti claims it was “difficult to put on a smile every day” during recording.  According to Nikolai Fraiture, “The communication, the focus…was starting to recede.”  Even Julian Casablancas concedes, “Some songs missed the mark.”

In July 2006 Nick Valensi marries his girlfriend, Amanda de Cadenet.  The bride is the ex-wife of John Taylor of British pop band of the 1980s Duran Duran.  Amanda is eleven years older than Nick Valensi, while Nick is only ten years older than his new step-daughter, Atlanta de Cadenet Taylor.  As did Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi turns his back on his wilder days.  The guitarist says, “If I was 13, I would not want to hear this, but I’m tired of bars, I’m tired of their drunks and cokeheads.  I’m trying to live responsibly.”  On 31 October 2006 Nick and Amanda become the parents of twins, a daughter named Ella and a son named Silvan.

Albert Hammond, Jr. becomes the first of The Strokes to release a solo album, ‘Yours To Keep’ (2006) (US no. 117, UK no. 74), on 6 October.  It includes ‘Back To The 101’ (UK no. 76).

Fabrizio Moretti dates actress Kirsten Dunst in 2007.

Fabrizio Moretti begins a musical side project, a band called Little Joy.  One of his bandmates in Little Joy, Binki Shapiro, is Moretti’s girlfriend from 2007 to 2011.  This indie group releases the album ‘Little Joy’ (2008) late in the year.

Albert Hammond, Jr. dates supermodel Agyness Deyn from 2008 to 2009.

Albert Hammond, Jr.’s second solo album, ¿Como Te Llama? (2008) (US no. 145, UK no. 183) arrives in July.  The title is Spanish for ‘How does he/she/it call you?’

Nickel Eye is Nikolai Fraiture’s ‘folky’ solo project.  Nickel Eye’s ‘Time Of The Assassins’ (2009) is issued early in the year.

Julian Casablancas releases a solo album, ‘Phrazes For The Young’ (2009) (US no. 35, UK no. 19), in October.  “For a long time I didn’t want to do a solo thing, but there comes a point where everyone else is going outside The Strokes and the Strokes filtering process,” he says, trying to justify the move.  Sounding rather half-hearted, Casablancas mutters, “The thing is, I never had a burning desire to do a solo record my whole life.”

Nick Valensi is the only member of The Strokes who does not work outside the band.  “I’m not a huge supporter of side/solo stuff,” claims the guitarist.  “I’m of the opinion that you’re in a band and that’s what you do.”

The Strokes finally regroup for ‘Angles’ (2011) (US no. 4, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1).  Production duties are shared by Gus Oberg, Joe Chiccarelli and The Strokes.  The songwriting here is more democratically divided than ever.  Julian Casablancas writes only two songs alone; the rest are collaborations with various other members of The Strokes.  ‘Undercover Of Darkness’ (UK no. 47) is the album’s best track, its guitars squealing in harmony.  All of The Strokes (except Nikolai Fraiture) have a hand in writing this track.  Fabrizio Moretti and Nick Valensi co-write ‘Taken For A Fool’ with Casablancas.  The song is sharp as a pin with what sounds like a synth-coloured chorus.  Julian Casablancas ‘self-removes’ from the studio during recording so as to not unduly influence the final results for the album, but Valensi, for one, feels that is “awful.”  He proclaims, “I feel like we have a better album in us and it’s going to come out soon.”

Fabrizio Moretti dates actress/comedienne Kristen Wiig from 2012 to July 2013.

‘Comedown Machine’ (2013) (US no. 10, UK no. 10, AUS no. 7), The Strokes’ fifth album, is released in March.  Gus Oberg produces the disc.  Julian Casablancas stays in the recording studio during the sessions for this album.  This is ‘a more streamlined, subdued affair.’  The single, ‘All The Time’ co-written by Julian Casablancas and Nikolai Fraiture, certainly has a more restrained groove.  The album’s tracks are all co-composed by Casablancas and various other Strokes.

Albert Hammond, Jr. issues an EP, ‘AHJ’, in October 2013.

On 23 December 2013, Albert Hammond, Jr. marries Justyna Sroka, a Polish restaurateur.

Julian Casablancas And The Voidz issue the album ‘Tyranny’ (2014) (US no. 39).  Albert Hammond issues ‘Momentary Masters’ (2015).

Were The Strokes rich kids?  Yes, perhaps, depending on how much wealth in a family meets a definition of ‘rich’.  Also some of them (e.g. Julian Casablancas) seem to come from greater affluence than others (e.g. Nick Valensi).  Does being rich mean you can’t play rock ‘n’ roll?  No, of course it does not.  It may be a less common characteristic in the rock industry, but The Strokes displayed a level of understanding and inspiration that makes a mockery of any inverted snobbishness among rock bands.  Regardless of whether the members of The Strokes were financially rich, the most important thing is that they were musically rich.  The Strokes offered ‘a revivifying blast of guitar-combo racket’ with ‘grainy vocals over a bouncy, new wave-style backing.’

Sources:

  1. brainyquote.com as at 8 June 2014
  2. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 14 April 2014
  3. wikipedia.org as at 14 April 2014, 1 January 2015, 1 January 2016
  4. ‘New York’ magazine – ‘Group Therapy’ – Strokes interview conducted by Jay McInerney (2006?) (reproduced on nymag.com)
  5. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 8 June 2014
  6. pitchfork.com – ‘This Is It: Ten Years of The Strokes’ by Jonathan Garrett (7 March 2011)
  7. celebheights.com as at 5 January 2013
  8. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 217
  9. allmusic.com, ‘The Strokes’ by Heather Phares as at 9 June 2014
  10. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 306
  11. lyricsfreak.com as at 6 June 2014
  12. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 67
  13. ‘Room On Fire’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (RCA/BMG, 2003) p. 6-7
  14. ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (RCA/Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2006) p. 35, 36

Song lyrics copyright Warner-Chappell U.K.

Last revised 3 January 2016

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